This really seems like a complete no-brainer. Unless you’re fasting, most of us don’t even think about it: it’s lunch time, it’s dinner time, it’s time for breakfast, so let’s eat! We usually don’t stop to think: am I actually hungry? Even if we do, I have learned that my body will lie to me and, sometimes, my body gets tricked. Smelling food, especially if it’s something we really like, is one of the ways we get tricked into thinking we are hungry. We’re sitting in traffic and the wonderful smell of Chinese food wafts in through the vents. After a couple of minutes our stomach growls and we start thinking “I’m kinda hungry.” We probably really aren’t hungry- we’ve just smelled something that’s triggering our digestive hormones and enzymes. It’s a biological reaction: food is available so eat it!
My body will also lie to me by telling me I’m hungry, even if I’m not, because it is “time to eat!” I’ve noticed it happens a lot around lunch time and again about 3:00 p.m. I call it ‘snack memory.’ Lunch time is pretty obvious, but I usually get off work about 3:00 and this is when I normally make a Starbucks run or if I stop for gas, I’d get sunflower seeds or some jerky. So in addition to eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, my stomach expects a snack around 3:00! The funny thing is that if I tell my stomach no, I stop being hungry about about 20 minutes or so. That’s how I know it’s not “real hunger” and I think that’s the important difference.
We’ve pretty much been taught to eat according the to clock rather than determining whether we’re actually hungry. We’ve also been taught to eat in certain situations. We meet up with friends and they’re all drinking mochas, lattes and having brownies: want a brownie? Sure! It’s polite. Saying no draws attention to you ‘being good’ or ‘being on a diet.’ Why can’t I just not be hungry? It’s a social situation, so coffee, drinks, snacks are expected. It’s how we socialize, so there’s a feeling of ‘not being social’ if you say no to whatever your friends are having.
It’s a catch-22: if we listen to our body when it says it’s hungry, we’d eat every time we smelled something good or food was available (isn’t that how I got to be 438 lbs?!) or we don’t eat when we’re hungry and eat when ‘it’s time’ instead (even when I’m not hungry??) So how do we find the right answer? Is there a ‘right’ answer? If it sounds like I’m being obnoxious, maybe I am a little, but as fitness and nutrition consumers, we’re constantly bombarded by advice along these lines: eat when you’re hungry! eat on schedule! And after being utterly confused by the internet, we decide to ask a live health care professional, like our doctor. Doctors unfortunately are pretty much in the same boat we are in. Unless they have a specialty in diet and nutrition, most of them have had about 12 to 24 hours of nutrition education. (That’s about one semester to give you some perspective.) They are as confused as we are, so don’t be surprised if they refer you to a nutritionist or a dietician. Even then, the question of when to eat is less of a issue for them than what you eat.
I’ve listened to many experts discuss the merits of fasting, eating on a schedule, and eating only when you’re hungry. There are those who insist that we need to eat three times a day with snacks in between. The logic is that eating on a schedule keeps your metabolism ‘revved up.’ I’ve also heard experts say that eating on a schedule or when you aren’t hungry keeps your body from burning any stored body fat, because rather than letting it draw from its stores (ie the fat in you’re trying to lose), you keep fuel in the bloodstream (that snack you just ate). They argue that constantly feeding your body keeps your glucose high and promotes fat storage rather than fat burning. It also keeps you craving foods on a regular basis (like my 3:00 p.m. snack memory).
There are those who promote eating only when you’re hungry (also called intuitive eating). Your body knows when it needs fuel and when you’re legitimately hungry (not tempted by sights, smells or snack memory), you are feeding your body appropriately. They argue this means that your body has burned through whatever fuel is in the bloodstream from your last meal or snack and now it needs more.
Then there are the fasting advocates. When most of them talk about fasting, they mean Intermittent Fasting (IF), which can take different forms. The one most of us are familiar with is pretty simple: you limit your ‘feeding window’ to certain hours and don’t take in any calories the rest of the time. Example: you only eat all your calories for the day from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and the rest of the time you fast. Sounds pretty ordinary, doesn’t it? The fasting experts say this is pretty much what we did in ‘the old days,’ and that’s why we were a lot healthier. (It’s kind of hard for me to argue with that because it’s what my grandfather did and he lived a long healthy life to age 96!) Another way to do Intermittent Fasting is what they call ‘alternate day fasting,’ which is just like it sounds: you eat on Monday, fast on Tuesday and so on. There are also other patterns like five days eating and two days fasting, etc. Most fasting proponents like to move the hours or days around to suit their lifestyles, and there are some who are also fans of ‘extended fasting,’ as in not eating for several days at a time. (If you think fasting might be something you want to try, the best book on the topic is The Complete Guide to Fasting by Dr. Jason Fung and Jimmie Moore.)
Then there are those who just offer advice, such as don’t eat within three hours of bedtime, or eat your biggest meal in the early part of the day, or wait until noon or later to eat instead of eating breakfast. As if eating weren’t complicated enough!
Having listened to lots of experts and their arguments, my own choice is to eat on a loose schedule with a little IF thrown in. Truthfully, the IF tends to happen more if I am some place that doesn’t have great food choices for me or if I am caught up in the middle of something. For me, eating every two hours is a recipe for disaster (yeah, it’s a bad if apropos pun!) It keeps me feeling hungry and my energy level (ie blood sugar) tends to crash if I can’t or don’t eat ‘on schedule.’ There are some days when I don’t exactly ‘fast,’ but my calorie intake is less than normal simply because I’m not hungry or I’m just too busy or there isn’t anything available that I like or want to eat. There is also the flip side: days when I eat a little bit more than normal because I’m really hungry. [I’d like to say that all these ‘experts’ agree on how much we should eat, but again there are those who say we should eat to satiety (no longer hungry but not full), and those that say we should eat a minimum number of calories daily or we start breaking down our muscle tissue to burn that! Another argument for another day!]
The best common sense advice I can give you: do what works best for you and fits best into your lifestyle. I tried some of the more conventional methods of IF, and it just doesn’t work out for me. However, it works out great for my sister and some of my fitness friends. I also know people who eat according to a schedule and they are successfully losing weight. The only thing they all have in common is that they are doing what works best for them. I know this seems like a cop-out answer, but it’s the only answer that works for you. We each respond better to different foods so why should it be so odd that we each respond better to different eating schedules? This is one of the reasons so many of us have trouble losing weight: we try to cram our needs into someone else’s schedules. If eating intuitively is working for you, then stick with it! If it’s not having the results you want, then find something you like better. Too many of us are looking for The Right Answer and there are a lot of companies that will happily sell it to you with no guarantees attached! Their Answers tend to be quick simple little Cookie-Cutter plans. Unfortunately, I’ve never met any Cookie-Cutter people.